Parenting in general is hard work, but when you’re parenting alone, you face a whole new world of challenges. In the early days you might need to find out where to go for legal, financial and emotional help, or you might need new accommodation. Later, you may have to deal with juggling your time, co-parenting with an ex, or running on low energy levels. All of these are challenges in themselves, but they also make it harder to fulfil another important task as a parent – that of maintaining healthy boundaries.
Boundaries are rules that you put in place in order to keep your child safe and healthy. For example, what time they come home, or go to bed, which computer games they play, or what standards of speech and behaviour you expect from them. Enforcing boundaries as a single parent can be one of the biggest challenges of all, and although they may try to push them, boundaries do give children a sense of security. So what are these challenges, and how can you deal with them in a way that allows you to stay strong and consistent?
As a single parent, you may feel a sense of guilt about enforcing boundaries or punishing your children when boundaries are crossed. You may feel that they have already been through enough, and you don’t want to burden them further. If you feel this way, it is important to remember that boundaries are actually good for children and help them to mature into responsible adults. If we always let them have their own way, they will expect the same thing from life when they are adults.
As well as remembering the ways that boundaries help your children, another useful antidote is to surround yourself with trusted ‘guilt-busting’ friends who you can go to if you feel that you are being too hard on your child. A good friend will be able to give you an unbiased and honest opinion, which in turn, will help dispel any unfounded feelings of guilt that you may have.
A parent/child relationship vs a friend/child relationship
A boundary that can easily become blurred is the parent/child relationship. This can happen rather naturally as single parents spend a great deal of time with their children and may have a lack of adult company and friends to confide in. In light of this, some parents may look to their children for emotional support, talking to them about money and relationship worries and seeking their help. This is known as ‘parentifying’ and is not what’s best for either the child or the parent. It is good to be ‘friends’ with your child – however, it is also important to keep the child/parent relationship in its correct form. There will be times where you as the parent may not be the most popular person; you may have to lay down boundaries and consequences that they won’t like, and if you have a friend/child relationship these boundaries become more difficult to enforce. Keeping your own role clear, and staying aware of the complications that can arise if this line becomes blurred, will help you keep your relationship strong and intact. Seeking out a close friend or family member to confide in is another way to keep the parent/child relationship healthy, as it enables you to go to them for emotional support rather than to your child.
Tiredness is another big challenge for single parents. A single parent doesn’t have the luxury of asking their partner to deal with the kids when they are sick or when the kids are acting up, they are on call 24/7 – and it can be exhausting! When we’re feeling exhausted it can be difficult to enforce the consequences of a crossed boundary. If your child for instance, is refusing to go to bed, and you feel too tired to deal with the situation, it can be tempting to let them get away with it. Instead, why not tell your child that you are exhausted, that this situation is important to you, and that you wish to discuss it when you have had some rest. Then choose an alternative time to discuss the situation, as this will allow you the time to rest and gather the energy it will take to follow through with any consequences you may need to enforce. Remember, you are not super-human. There is only so much one person can give, so take time out for yourself and rest whenever you can.
Co-parenting with someone who parents completely differently to you is another big challenge. The other parent may come across as the ‘Disneyland parent’, where all they want to do is have fun with the children without any boundaries or discipline at all. This can make it harder for you to enforce boundaries without you seeming ‘extreme’. Once again, guilt may try to rear its ugly head. When this happens, it is important to remember why you have placed a boundary in the first place, and that it was for your child’s own good. We do need to choose our battles, but for the boundaries that you feel strongly about, stand firm and stick to your guns. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. This will make your life much easier in the long run, as your children will know that if you lay a boundary down and they cross it, you will enforce the consequences. If possible, try to agree on a parenting style with your ex that creates consistency across the board.
Parenting on your own isn’t always plain-sailing, but putting a few structures and systems in place can help to make the journey that bit easier for you – and ultimately more enjoyable. It may be tempting to let your children get away with more than they used to, but even though this sometimes feels kinder, it is actually the opposite of what they need. Clear, consistent boundaries will help to maintain their sense of structure and security, and will help them to grow into the mature, confident adults that you know they can be.